Monday, August 31, 2015

Organic History and the NOFA Summer Conference ~ "The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible"

by Bill Duesing

The 41st NOFA Summer Conference last month at the University of Massachusetts in
Amherst provided an exciting combination of cutting edge and practical information so useful for organic growers and eaters as well as opportunities to visit with old and new NOFA friends, just as it has for four decades.

It also provided an opportunity to reflect on the history of the organic movement and how the holistic organic approach with deep roots in traditional cultures has the ability to solve current environmental and social problems. (For more on the value of this approach, I highly recommend Bill McKibben's recent essay "The Pope and the Planet" in the New York Review of Books.)

Over 1,100 people of all ages attended this year's conference which was dedicated to Juanita Nelson, a peace and civil rights activist, war tax refuser, subsistence farmer, the impetus behind Greenfield, Massachusetts' Free Harvest Supper and Winter Fare and a longtime NOFA member.

The theme, "Healing the Climate, Healing Ourselves: Regeneration through Microbiology" referred to the two keynote presentations.  On Friday night, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride talked about the numerous roles the microorganisms in our intestines (the human microbiome) play in our physical and mental health in a presentation titled "Overcoming Psychiatric Problems by Healing the Digestive System." On Saturday night, Ronnie Cummins talked about the role of the soil microbiome in soil, plant and planetary health in "Reversing Global Warming and Rural Poverty through Regenerative Organics."  These two presentations were a near perfect expression of the holistic nature of organic agriculture as expressed in the quote at the beginning of this piece which is variously attributed to Sir Albert Howard and to Lady Eve Balfour. 

Howard went to India nearly a century ago to teach farmers there good British agricultural methods.  Instead he a discovered a better way to farm based on composting, crop rotation and human labor.  His An Agricultural Testament was published in 1940 and was very influential in the early organic farming movement.

Organic farming pioneer, Lady Eve Balfour, began farming in Britain in 1920.  In 1943, she published The Living Soil based on the first three years of her pioneering side-by-side comparison of  organic and chemical farming. A few years later she founded the Soil Association, still Britain's organic farming organization.

Before the Saturday night keynote, NOFA/Mass premiered its video on restoring carbon to the soil with the help of plants and a vibrant soil ecosystem.  The organization also distributed its white paper, "Soil Carbon Restoration: Can Biology do the Job?" written by Jack Kittredge. Both of these valuable resources are available here. The short version is that much of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is altering the climate originally came from the soil as a result of tillage, agricultural chemical use, long periods of bare soil between cash crops as well as from deforestation. One of the most powerful and viable ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere is to restore it to the soil by using growing methods which keep the soil covered with a variety of plants as much a possible and tilling as little as possible.  Another important tool in this work is careful, rotational grazing by animals to encourage deep rooted, diverse pastures and vigorous soil life. These strategies can also help restore water to soil and aquifers and increase plant health and resistance to diseases.

Of the more than 100 workshops offered, I attended five, all of which provided valuable information for use on our farm.  Farmer Daniel Botkin's workshop "Build and Manage Low-tech, Low-cost Low-tunnels" demonstrated many ways to expand the use of low tunnels including as nurseries for a variety of crops, to grow crops that are not quite hardy here and to extend the harvest season at both ends. He keeps any soil that isn't covered by plants mulched with hay. He doesn't ever till his soil. (This reminded me of Connecticut gardener Ruth Stout who was famous for using mulch instead of tillage in her garden.) Julie Rawson, who presented the workshop "Raising High Quality Vegetables while Building Carbon" does some tillage, but always adds compost or cover crops at the same time. Julie uses many different cover crops and creates specialized composts for different plants.  The workshop "Improving Soil Health with Cover Crops" was presented by Thomas Akin, the Massachusetts State Resource Conservationist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). He encouraged vegetable farmers to use a diverse mixture of cover crops whenever possible to fix nitrogen, scavenge nutrients and feed a wide variety of soil organisms.  In the past few years, the NRCS has become very active in promoting practices which increase and maintain soil health.

UMass Extension Associate Susan Scheufele's very informative workshop on "Integrated Pest Management in Brassicas" (using organic strategies) provided examples of the effects the changing climate is having on our growing practices.  New pests have moved into this region as temperatures warm and the growing season lengthens. Fortunately, for managing most of these insects and diseases, there are low-tech organic methods, such as using straw mulch, perimeter trap crops and good scouting. It was wonderful to hear this UMass extension educator talk so knowledgeably and respectfully about organic methods. It hasn't been and and still isn't always so. (You can view Susan's Powerpoint slides here.  Be forewarned  that it includes information about chemical controls which she skipped at NOFA.)

I finished up the conference with Dan Rosenberg's excellent  "Advanced Vegetable Fermentation" workshop to learn more about this low energy and healthful way to preserve the bounty of the harvest for winter eating. The founder of Real Pickles, Dan was able to address questions from folks who were fermenting a wide variety of vegetables at home and on a commercial scale.

Receiving the first "Bill Duesing Lifetime Achievement Award"
This year's conference also provided me with three opportunities to reflect on the growth of the organic movement in this region, on the deep roots of organic practice and my involvement with NOFA. I presented a workshop on "Organic History, Theory and Practice" and was interviewed as part of the oral history project at the W.E.B. Dubois Library at UMass which is collecting NOFA archives as part of its social change in New England collection. Then on Saturday night, I was awarded the first "Bill Duesing Lifetime Achievement Award" by the NOFA Interstate Council.

How it all began . . .

It was just a little notice in Organic Gardening magazine early in 1972 that got me connected to NOFA, then only a few months old and based in Vermont. The notice advertised a meeting of organic farmers that winter. (I believe it was in a Grange hall basement.) For three years before that I had lived on an old farm and grown food as part of the Pulsa artists' commune at Harmony Ranch in Oxford, CT.  Several members had parents who were organic gardeners so Organic Gardening magazines were always lying around the farmhouse.  

My first garden at Harmony Ranch as seen in the article, "The Public Sensoriums of Pulsa: Cybernetic Abstraction and the Biopolitics of Urban Survival" in the fall 2008 issue of Art Journal.

I'd also read and been inspired by F. H. King's Farmers of Forty Centuries, Or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, published in 1911, in which the USDA soil scientist describes how farmers in China, Japan and Korea had managed to feed a large population from a small land base for 4,000 years without destroying the fertility of the soil.  He understood how linear, industrial agriculture decreased soil health and fertility in this country. King describes many practices that are now standard on good organic farms: multiple cropping and intercropping, intelligent rotations, cover crops, growing food almost everywhere and recycling all organic matter.   I was also inspired by Louis Bromfield's description in Pleasant Valley (published in 1945) of the way he returned dust bowl ruined farms to fertility and made springs that had been dry for years flow again by using organic methods, sustainable forestry, compost and careful grazing.

The owners of Harmony Ranch wanted to sell it for industrial purposes. Some of us wanted to have a piece of land where we could plant trees and see them mature. I wanted to continue the organic growing which had excited me for several years.

Earlier that winter, we had found a beautiful piece of land on the other side of Oxford, part of what had been Joe and Josephine Solar's farm. I was ready to learn more about organic growing and homesteading, so the NOFA meeting sounded very good.

After that first meeting I was hooked on NOFA. I found many kindred spirits - well educated back-to-the-landers who were interested in growing healthy food for their families and communities.  People who couldn't imagine spraying poisons on their food, or even handling toxic pesticides. At that time the agricultural establishment was resistant to new farmers who wanted to grow organically.  It just didn't work they said. So we decided that we needed to share information among ourselves and NOFA has been facilitating that for nearly 45 years through its conferences, workshops, advocacy and outreach programs. It is amazing to see how consumers, farmers and even some in the ag establishment now understand the importance and effectiveness of organic farming methods.

Within a few years, NOFA consisted of chapters in Vermont and New Hampshire, as well as a growing number of members in other states in the Northeast. At some point in the late 1970s, I volunteered to be on the NOFA Interstate Council as one of two representatives of members who weren't in Vermont or New Hampshire.  

Beginning in 1975, the Council created the Summer Conference.  Wendell Berry was the keynote speaker at the first conference held at High Mowing School in New Hampshire. Although I missed the Friday night keynote, I remember especially NOFA Founding President Samuel Kaymen's workshop on soil fertility the next day and the workshops on Biodynamic Agriculture which were featured on Sunday. Until the mid 1980s, the Conference alternated between Vermont and New Hampshire.

The Council also published the organization's newspaper, The Natural Farmer and was ready to accept new state chapters as membership in other states grew.  During the 1980s, chapters were formed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.  The Rhode Island Chapter was formed in 1990. I was the founding president of the Connecticut chapter in 1982 and served as a board member until I started working for CT NOFA in 2001 when the organization hired its first coordinator before expanding my title to Executive Director. I retired from this position in 2013, but still serve as the Organic Advocate. 

The Interstate Council provided a way for state chapters to work together on important issues. Organic certification, for example, which most of the states had initiated in the 1980s and the formation of the National Organic Program in the 1990s were a strong focus. The Council also spread the expertise of Northeast growers through farmer-to-farmer meetings, a multiyear project to encourage CSAs, The Real Dirt (published in 1993 to share the strategies of successful organic farmers) and the NOFA Organic Practices Handbook series.

Over the years the Council was a founding member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and of the Agricultural Justice Project. The Interstate's policy work has grown significantly in the past decade.

Once the Connecticut NOFA chapter was formed, I represented it on the Council until 2014.  It was my privilege to be president of the Interstate Council for several three-year terms in the 1990s and 2000s. The work of the Council in tying together the NOFA members is critically important. 

I was honored to be able to play a part in the leadership of this pioneering organization for nearly four decades, humbled by my Lifetime Achievement Award and am excited by the next two generations of organic farmers, gardeners and activists who attended this year's conference.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Western Connecticut Farm Crawl

by Bill Duesing

For August, I'm taking a vacation from the Gleanings essay to highlight a few long time CT NOFA members and their farms.

On an absolutely beautiful early August Sunday, the long running New Milford Farmers Market sponsored its First Annual Western Connecticut Farm Crawl, an open house at many of the farms which sell at the market. Three of the farms are certified organic.  I got to two of them and one other.  I learned a lot.
Riverbank Farm
David Blyn and Laura McKinney of Riverbank Farm

David Blyn began growing vegetables on a half acre of Riverbank Farm in 1991, during a downturn which slowed his carpentry business.  His bottom land along the Shepaug River in Roxbury responded well and he was hooked.  (I remember another long time farmer and  CT NOFA member Mel Bristol of Bloomingfields Farm being astounded at the amount of produce David brought to the New Milford Farmers market in the early days and that he sold it all at $1 a pound.)

In 1996 David met Laura McKinney who had just completed the sustainable agriculture program at the University of California at Santa Cruz.  (That program is now taking applications for scholarships for its six month program which begins in April, 2016.  Steve Munno, CT NOFA board member and farmer at Massaro Farm in Woodbridge is another graduate of that program.)

Now, nearly twenty years later, David and Laura have three daughters and sell at seven summer and two winter markets. David says their oldest daughter who is 13 can handle a market by herself. David reminisced about the time when he was on the CT NOFA certification committee and the various farmers who were involved in that effort.  A special shout out to Wayne Hansen, who was the inspector, and Guy Beardsley, both of whom are still growing certified organic vegetables. (CT NOFA certified organic farms in the state from the late 1980s until the USDA took over organic in 2002.)
Here are some pictures of Riverbank farm from yesterday.

David Blyn and farm visitors studying the cultivating tractor David converted to electric using golf cart technology. In 2013, David brought this tractor to the Winter Conference and shared his knowledge in a workshop.

Riverbank Farm. Both Riverbank and Fort Hill Farms have photovoltaic arrays. They both emphasized repeated plantings throughout the season. Here are the most recent plantings of cucumbers and squash.

Riverbank Farm packing area. Trucks, one dedicated to each market,
can pull into the shade to load up.

Some of Riverbank's equipment. David speaks of the advantages of having separate equipment dedicated to different tasks, especially with a large farm crew.

Riverbank's Root Crop Washer.  This was designed and is sold by organic farmer and former NOFA NY president Dick de Graff of Grindstone Farm.
Fort Hill Farm

Paul Bucciaglia and
Rebecca Batchie
Then I visited Fort Hill Farm in New Milford, run by Paul Bucciaglia and Rebecca Batchie. Paul grew up in Naugatuck, CT, studied agriculture at Penn State before beginning graduate studies in plant biology at the University of Minnesota.  However in the mid 1990s, he worked on an organic farm near the Twin Cities and decided to leave the laboratory for small scale organic farming.  Beginning in 1999, Paul apprenticed at Brookfield Farm CSA in Massachusetts and then managed Holcomb Farm CSA in Granby, CT for two years before leasing 20, flat, sandy acres of protected farmland in New Milford owned by the Sunny Valley Preserve, part of The Nature Conservancy.   (Sunny Valley owns and leases out a number of farms in the area. They specifically wanted an organic farm when they connected with Paul in 2002.) Paul started that fall by plowing four acres of the larger, long time hay field. That was the beginning of his continuing work to improve the sandy soil with compost and minerals. (He is currently focusing on the role of silica in growing healthy Cucurbits.) Rebecca, with a background in horticulture that leaned toward vegetables, joined Paul on the farm in 2011 after earning a degree in Critical Social Thought from Mount Holyoke College. Their son Luca just turned two. 

Both Riverbank and Fort Hill farms are very involved in creating the next generation of successful vegetable farmers. Their workers, interns and apprentices have gone on to start or work on many other farms.  Mark Palladino of Wild Carrot Farm is one example I am familiar with.  He went from an office job dealing with numbers to being a successful certified organic vegetable farmer after working at Riverbank Farm. Mark farmed on leased land in Canton for a number of years before finding his current location in Bantam.

Here are some photos of Fort Hill Farm.


Paul didn't talk much about his CSA. It is so popular and his customers are so loyal that the wait list rarely opens up and it can take years to become a member once you are on the wait list.  His distribution strategies, vegetable choices and growing skills are very attractive.  These signs from the distribution shed provide examples of the farm's approach and show which vegetables are currently available.

Paul has invested in five coolers, each used for a different purpose. One is set to 34 degrees and 100 percent humidity for rapidly cooling and storing greens.  One is warmer and dryer for squash and cukes.  Another set at about 65 holds tomatoes away from fruit flies and yet another stores potatoes at an appropriate temperature.  In the spring they use a small electric heater in one to get the ginger started.

Beef steak type tomatoes are grown in a greenhouse that only uses a little supplemental in the spring to get early tomatoes. In the fall, this greenhouse will be sown to spinach.

When Paul arrived at Fort Hill, there was no infrastructure, just a hayfield. Using the resources of Sunny Valley Preserve and various Federal and State agricultural program, they have created the needed infrastructure. Paul sees that as a public investment in this land which will always be a farm.
Lettuce seedlings
 Lettuce seedlings
Ailsa Craig onions drying in a greenhouse

Fort Hill's three bay high tunnel for heirloom tomatoes and specialty crops
In response to the interest in the health and flavoring benefits of ginger and turmeric, Fort Hill has a crop of both those plants growing this year.

Paul is experimenting with growing organic pears and apples.

Batavian lettuces hold up well in the heat and are popular with customers
Flowers are pick your own for CSA shareholders
Paul in front of his sweet potato field.  The crop does well in the farm's sandy soil and is popular with shareholders.  Notice the sweet corn on the right. Sweet corn and strawberries are two crops his shareholders also really like.  When Paul and CT NOFA hosted an organic IPM workshop at Fort Hill some years ago, he mentioned that marketing his corn through the CSA was part of his organic IPM strategy.  His customers really like organic sweet corn and are willing to tolerate the few worms that get past his organic control using Bt.

Because of sandy soil and limited well capacity, they irrigate in a variety of ways.  This water reel is used at night. In the heat of the day, drip irrigation is used on mulched tomatoes. 

Happy Acres Farm

Cows on grass at
Happy Acres Farm
Paul recommended that I visit Happy Acres Farm in Sherman next. Mel and Diana Bristol and other friends who live in Sherman had told me how excited they were that their town had purchased the nearly 100 acre Happy Acres Farm and had accepted a proposal from two young men to raise grass-fed beef in order to maintain and improve the beautiful valley farm with land along both sides of Route 39 north of Sherman center and south of the Bristol' s farm.

I didn't know until I read this article from across the Atlantic in The Guardian that these two young men had met at Riverbank Farm. At the time environmental writer John Motsinger was volunteering to learn more about farming and Adam Mantzaris was making the transition from biomedical engineering to farming, inspired by Michael Pollen's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

I had met John and Adam earlier in the year when they consulted with me about organic certification at CT Farm Risk Management's One-on-One advising sessions. These sessions are another important resource for new and any other farmers who have questions about regulations, legal matters, land transfer or other issues and want to talk privately with an expert.  These free sessions are scheduled in locations throughout the state for late winter or early spring if funding is available. Check here for more information later in the year.

Sarah and some of the vegetables
she is growing in the first year garden
at Happy Acres farm.
A woman's perspective is so important for a farm. Each of these farms involves strong women; the men spoke respectfully of their roles.  I was very happy to see Sarah at Happy Acres who I'd met many times when she was Guy Beardsley's best worker at Guy's EcoGarden in Shelton. (You can hear Guy at noon on The Organic Farmstand, the first and third Thursday of each month on WPKN, 89.5 from Bridgeport or at This year Sarah established the vegetable garden at Happy Acres.  Sarah also worked at Riverbank Farm for a while.  Vegetables and grass fed meat are sold at Happy Acres farmstand.  Meat is also sold at several farmers markets.

Here are some photos of Happy Acres Farm
Fields along Route 39 which the cows will be rotated through two acres at a time.
Adam Mantzaris of Happy Acres Farm with goats that have been trained for brush clearing on the farm. They were temporarily contained pending an electric fence repair.
John Motsinger with a dairy heifer belonging to a young man who hopes to start a dairy and is trading farm work for heifer housing and care.

More views of Happy Acres Farm

Topmost Herb Farm

Carole Miller
The day before the farm crawl, Suzanne and I were invited to a friends and family blessing for Carole Miller, a very long time CT NOFA member and owner of Topmost Herb Farm in Coventry. In 2001, Carole opened her beautiful farm to CT NOFA for its Taste! Organic Connecticut Event, which included an organic farmers market, local organic food, cooking demonstrations, classes and music.  It was one of the first destination markets in the state and one of the first public outings for the Big Green Pizza Truck which started a continuing trend in this state.  Carole provided the venue for seven more years, each one hosting 700 to 1000 happy people.  Taste! moved to Manchester Community College for two years until the growth of exciting weekly farmers markets including organic farmers made Taste! less important.

Carole is an important organizer, volunteer and vendor at the Coventry Regional Farmers Market. On this TV talk show, Carole reminisces about growing up near her current farm, how she got interested in herbs and organic methods.

Hopeful Examples

It is not easy to rebuild our current food system which is broken in so many ways: dependent on lots of fossil fuels and dangerous chemicals, on very long distance transportation and on very low paid often immigrant labor. These young and not so young Connecticut farmers provide hopeful examples of the ways we can create holistic, organic solutions to feeding ourselves with healthy food at fair prices. There is little that is more important for our future.